Crime Fiction in Cuba

The mystery is alive, well and getting more exciting in Fidel Castro’s socialist republic. Crime fiction by island-born writers did not appear in Cuba until the 1970s – well after the Revolution, although translations of works by U.S. and British mystery writers have always been popular. There is some evidence that the first crime stories were written by Lino Novas Calvo in the 1940s, given the existence of a 1995 publication edited by Jose Fernandez Pequeno entitled Narraciones policiales/Lino Novas Calvo (Police Narratives of Lino Novas Calvo, Santiago de Cuba, Editorial Oriente). The first well-documented indigenous Cuban author was Ignacio Cardenas Acuna. The action of his hard-boiled novel, Enigma para un Domingo (Enigma for a Sunday, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1971) begins and ends in post-revolutionary Cuba but most of the action transpires in the pre-revolutionary period. This is a convenient method for placing criminal behavior in the past and not in the socialist present. Acuna also published Preludio para un asesinato (Prelude to an Assassination, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1981).

In 1972 the Cuban Government sponsored a literary competition – Contest on the Anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution – that generated the first significant number of detective stories or “ literatura policial.” The government, however, made it clear that this literature was to be educational and designed to promote awareness and prevention of antisocial and counterrevolutionary tendencies. The heroes are the police, usually a team of police officers, and the people are vigilant and committed to the regime and the Revolution. As in the case of other authoritarian governments, crime fiction was to be clearly ideological and in the service of the state.

Two related types of publications appeared on the scene at the same time. “Testimonio” or true crime reports that described criminal deeds and emphasized that criminals were always caught and punished. They are clearly ideological propaganda in which anti-social behavior is identified and denounced. “Contaespionaje” (counter espionage) literature also became popular and invariably is anti-U. S and glorifies the State Security Department of the Government.

Despite the cultural restrictions imposed by the state, Cuban crime authors have become increasingly creative and entertaining. Even without the usual mystery conventions such as red herrings and Dr. Watson-like narrators, crime fiction writers have pushed the envelope.

Armando Cristobal Perez published La ronda de los rubies (The Ruby Necklace, Arte y Literatura, Havana, 1973) involving a CIA agent, a homosexual and a ruby necklace that was to be exchanged for a trip out of Cuba. Exciting stuff! He also published Siete variaciones policiales: cuentos (Seven Police Variations- Stories, Arte y Literatura, Havana, 1975) with E. Morales Alpizar. A very popular novel, El cuarto circulo (The Fourth Circle, Arte y Literatura, Havana, 1976) was published by Luis Rogelia Nogueras and Guilermo Rodriguez Rivera in which a very characteristically undistinguished detective, Hector Roman, solves the case. In El American Way of  Death ( Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1980) by Juan Angel Cardi, most of the story is set in the U.S. in 1957 (although it begins and ends in Cuba) and depicts a degenerate America. The author cleverly introduces into the story U.S. fictional detectives including Perry Mason, Mike Hammer and others in a somewhat clandestine attempt to honor the classics of the genre while denouncing their social system. Cardi also published Dos casos de un detective (A Detective’s Two Cases, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1983).

One of the most interesting writers is Arnaldo Correa. His El terror (Terror, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1982) is a collection of 16 stories that are not overtly ideological and give evidence of the existence of criminal activity by citizens in Revolutionary Cuba. His 1997 novel entitled La espantosa muerte del baron of Shitland (TheFear of Death of the Baron of Shitland, Editorial Letras Cubanas, Havana) gives evidence of his sense of humor. Correa’s most recent novel has been translated into English and published in the U.S. – Spy’s Fate, (Akashic Books, and N.Y. 2002). Akashic Books, incidentally, publishes a good bit of Cuban noire literature.

There are two relatively controversial Cuban mystery writers who merit special attention. Leonardo Padura Fuentes has created a rather non-flashy detective- Mario Conde – who has been featured in four novels to date. His first novel, Pasado perfecto (Past Perfect, Ediciones Union, Havana, 1995) was first published in Mexico and banned in Cuba.The second, Vientos de cuaresma (Winds of Lent, Ediciones Union, 1994) won a Cuban literary prize for best novel. The third, Mascaras (Mascara, Ediciones Union, 1997) was initially banned in Cuba and published abroad, winning a Spanish literary prize. The fourth, Pasajes de otono (Fall Passage, Tusquets Editores, 1998) was also first published in Spain in 1998. A Spanish/Cuban collaboration brought the novel on to movie screens soon after publication. Padura’s work skirts the edges of government acceptability but eventually wins domestic support. His work is unusual for Cuban mysteries in that it employs a Spanish vernacular language and reflects the new post-Soviet supported reality on the island. Although Padura is not actually a dissident, his novels describe Cuba’s social problems and are critical of the negative aspects of Cuban society today. He has also published with John Kirk a book of interviews and reflections on Cuban cultural trends- Culture and the Cuban Revolution: Conversations (University of Florida Press, Gainesville, 2001).

The second writer of note is Jose Latour whose seventh mystery, Outcast (Akashic Books, N.Y., 1999) is the first Cuban crime novel written in English and published in the U.S. The story features a Cuban schoolteacher, the son of a Cuban mother and a U.S. laborer, who escapes to Miami, descends into a criminal life, and finds the American system no better than the Cuban. It is a bit of a potboiler but interesting. He has also published The Fool (Akashic Books, N.Y. 2000). Latour lives in Havana and is the Vice president of the Latin American Division of the International Association of Crime Writers. In Cuba he has published many novels under the pen name Javier Moran (e.g. Preludio a la noche – Prelude to the Night- Ediciones Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1985). Padura and Latour testify to the gradual erosion of restrictions on crime writers today.

Two other authors who have employed the island as a venue should be mentioned – Daniel Chavarria and Carolina Garcia- Aguilera. Chavarria is a Uruguayan mystery writer who has published a novel set in Cuba – Adios Muchachos (Akashic Books, N.Y., 2001). It involves a Cuban prostitute and a Canadian businessman and is fast-paced, sexy and provides an interesting glimpse into contemporary Cuba. Ms. Garcia-Aguilera is a Cuban-born Miami writer who sets most of her work in the exile community of Miami. She does, however, sometimes send her heroine, P.I. Lupe Solano, to the island in search of justice. The two novels with incursions into Cuba include Havana Heat (Avon, 2001) and Bloody Waters (Berkley Publishing group, 1997) while her most recent is Bitter Sugar (William Morrow, 2001).

The mystery in Cuba has a short but rapidly changing history and, given the recent trends and innovations, it is a national genre worth watching and reading. Even in difficult environments the genre manages to surprise and thrive.

GJD

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